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Chapter 22: the secret service fund--charges against Webster, 1845-46.

Mr. Davis saw that he had been approved by Mr. Adams, and generally recognized as a personage in the House, without any one having an exact reason to assign for this distinction, and was subsequently brought more prominently into notice by an attack made upon Mr. Webster by Mr. Charles Jared Ingersoll in the House of Representatives.

The hands of the public men of the time had been clean of plunder, or the imputation of dishonesty — it was not a day of personal “investigations.” Wall Street had no subterranean passage leading to the White House; and an imputation upon the honor of a senator startled his colleagues like “a fire-bell in the night.”

Mr. Ingersoll astonished the House and Senate by moving an inquiry into Mr. Webster's conduct as Secretary of State. lie asked for the papers relating to the killing of Durpree, an American. In 1837, a party of [249] Americans had made an effort to capture and occupy Navy Island, a British possession, and Durpree had been one of them. The attempt was not successful, the invading party were captured, and Durpree killed in the melee. In 1840, two years after, McLeod, the man who killed him, related the circumstance in a boastful manner in New York. He was arrested and tried for murder.

Mr. Fox, for the English Government, avowed the act and demanded McLeod's release. Mr. Ingersoll accused Mr. Webster of using the contingent fund and his personal influence over Mr. W. H. Seward, Governor of New York, to secure McLeod's release; of expending public moneys in corrupting the press and the people, and of being himself a defaulter to the Government. He compared the illustrious ex Secretary of State to Bacon, “the wisest and meanest of mankind,” capping the indictment with the suggestion that Mr. Webster had offered the Northwest Territory to Great Britain in exchange for free trade. Astonishing as it now seems, the resolution calling upon the President for the correspondence covering this period was passed--136 yeas to 23 nays — though Mr. Adams assured the House, as an ex-President of the United States, that Mr. Webster had no opportunity to defraud the Government [250] of the secret-service money or contingent fund, without the co-operation of the President, and gave the most cogent reasons why these secret negotiations should not be made public.

It would be a most embarrassing precedent, and one it would be unadvisable to establish and impracticable to follow. Mr. Winthrop, of Massachusetts, Mr. Seddon, of Virginia, and most of the conservative men of the House objected to calling for the secret papers as a dangerous precedent; but Mr. Winthrop said if any were called for, he wanted also those concerning Texas and Louisiana. T. Butler King and other men of national reputation spoke warmly against the resolutions.

Seen in the light of the “investigations” of this day, and the immense deficits which have been discovered in the public funds, this inquiry of Mr. Ingersoll's seems to have been a mere “tempest in a tea-pot.” Then it stirred men deeply on both sides of the House and became almost a party question. The effort to stain the great reputation of Mr. Webster, in the possession of which the North and South felt alike honored, the petty sum that he was accused of filching ($5,460), horrified his friends and staggered the faith of his enemies in his accuser. Everybody was enlisted on one side or the other. The prevailing [251] impression made upon the moderate men of both parties was that Mr. Ingersoll's spleen was the result of some private pique.

Mr. Webster made rather a lengthy explanation to the Senate, before such a crowd of spectators in the galleries and on the floor of the Senate, that even outside the railing there was not standing room. His manner was not that of a man defending himself before enemies, but rather of a brother explaining to his family one of his contentions with the outer world, and confiding his unexpected annoyance to those of whose sympathy he was assured. I venture to say he received it very generally. The ladies and the reporters certainly were with him. After various pros and cons, stated by almost all the leading men of the House, following pretty much the bent of party rancor, the resolutions were passed.

This resolution called up T. Butler King, of Georgia, in defence of Mr. Webster; Mr. Ingersoll in reiteration and reaffirmation; Mr. Ashman, of Massachusetts, in defence.

Mr. Schenck and Mr. John Pettit (Democrat) each moved that a committee be organized, the first to inquire how the seal of confidence imposed upon the Department had been broken; the second to examine into the charges, with a view to impeaching Mr. [252] Webster. This last committee, of course, had the power conferred to “send for persons and papers.” Under this permission ex-President Tyler had been summoned to Washington. On the committee, as finally organized, were Mr. Vinton, of Ohio; Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi; D. P. King, of New York, and Jacob Brinkerhoff, of Ohio. It was before them that ex-President Tyler appeared and exonerated Mr. Webster.

There were two reports written: one vindicatory of Mr. Webster, but deprecatory of further inquiry, and a minority report, which was written by Mr. Davis, and was not the one at first designed to be presented, but which finally, after many emendations, was accepted by the committee.

As Mr. Webster was looked upon at the time as the prominent candidate for the Presidency, there were some unpleasant remarks about a Democrat “whitewashing” him; and a Northern tariff Democrat came to Mr. Davis, at our lodging, the night before the result of the committee's deliberations was announced, to argue against the opportunity being lost of “scotching the snake.” Mr. Davis told him with much heat that if Mr. Webster was to be entailed upon the country for life, “and no one could deprecate his [253] policy more than I do, I would not make a false and partizan report or parley with my sense of justice and honor, nor would the gentlemen associated with me.” The letter is much defaced from which this quotation is made, and all the account cannot be deciphered.

Mr. Webster called upon Mr. Davis and expressed in warm terms his sense of the manly manner in which he had defended him. Mr.Webster and Mrs. Webster came to call upon me, and invited me most kindly to accompany them to Marshfield.

It was in 1845 that the first “Exposition” of a general character took place. It was called then a “National Exhibition.” It was a very long, rough, clapboard room, with no pretention to any architectural merit. It occupied nearly two squares on C Street, and was perfectly straight except in the open square of the City Hall, there it extended an ugly arm about twenty feet. The stands for the exhibit were of unplaned wood, and they were covered with coarse, dark cambric. Almost every State sent earnest of its industry and ingenuity. Very wonderful they were to us then; but bungling efforts enough now, viewed by the light of modern discoveries.

The crowd was constant about a certain stand, and my husband made a place for me [254] to see the wondrous thing on it. It was a small box, and through a slot on the top was slowly pushed two narrow edges of cloth, and a needle with an eccentric motion played laterally through the cloth and sewed a pretty good seam. An old woman with bare knotty hands, a much pricked forefinger, and a large basket of cloth on her arm, pointed to the little box and said, with a snarl, “That's all nice, but sposen it ware breeches” (tapping her basket significantly), “that there box wouldn't begin to hold 'em.” Mr. Davis always appreciated with boyish zest any humorous thing, and he laughed aloud. This daunted the exhibitor somewhat, but he shot a look of contempt at the practical old operative and plunged into a state of unintelligible terminology in which slots, tensions, head-pieces, spirals, cylinders, cogs, and what not made havoc with his audience. We fled; the old seamstress followed.

A few steps beyond us, coming also to view the “sewing-jenny,” as it was most often called, strolled a tall thin gentleman, with a large, hooked nose, steady gray eyes, iron-gray hair, and a dignified, majestic presence, united to a certain benevolent, bland toleration of manner, like a general in mufti among his troops. He approached us. When just about to pass, one of the loose planks in [255] the flooring tilted under his feet, and as he was going to fall Mr. Davis caught him. He recovered himself with easy grace and having offered thanks he turned to leave. I whispered, “I am sure he is somebody,” which induced Mr. Davis to observe the stranger more narrowly. Immediately he made a very low bow and saluted ex-President Tyler, who was strolling through the Exhibition for the first time.

In that day, except in the case of re-election, no ex-President considered it a dignified course to return to Washington, and ex-President John Quincy Adams's return to serve in the House had been much criticised and regretted by all parties; but the “old man eloquent” concerned himself very little with the standards of others; he enjoyed and took his own way. Mr. Tyler remembered Mr. Davis also, and was gracious enough to speak of the impression he had received when Mr. Davis was presented to him in 1836.

Mr. Tyler accepted my husband's arm, and we walked slowly on, and then those two interesting gentlemen thoroughly succeeded in shuffling off the mortal coil of the childish young person who trotted beside them, ardently longing for a look at all the new and curious wares displayed; but perforce of the dignity and simplicity of their conversation [256] was somewhat consoled for the personal sacrifice. However, our few outings generally ended in the same way.

After a cursory view of the political horizon they plunged into a long conversation upon the recent inquiry into Mr. Webster's administration of the “secret service money.” Mr. Tyler said he had been summoned to testify before the committee of investigation; that he thought it a great outrage upon a man in whose genius the people of the whole Union gloried; and that Mr. Webster had satisfied him, at the time, of its careful and wise use. Mr. Davis asked him if he had preserved notes of these secret transactions, and taking the affirmative for granted, went on to say: “I suppose you, Mr. President, can spread these now before us, as they are past history and Mr. Webster's best vindication.” But Mr. Tyler gravely responded that he had never considered himself authorized to put on any private file the matters that the Government had decided should not appear on those of the country. “I can give, if interrogated, dates, sums, and persons to whom the money was paid. The very nature of the service shows that it is Punic faith to those who give the information to expose their agency in the matter by making written record of it.” Mr. Davis then politely pressed the stately old [257] man to tell how he could remember: “Is it by a system of mnemonics?” I mentally registered a vow to find out what mnemonics was, and be even with them. Mr. Tyler replied, and I think I remember the words of his answer: “No, sir, I remembered them as part of my duty to the state. As no written record was permitted, the Government took it for granted I would not forget.” They then strolled on, talking on public matters, and of the arts of agriculture, in which they were both proficient. A fine Hereford cow had been sent for exhibition from the ex-President's plantation, Sherwood Forest, on the James River, and he took us to the awkward arm of the building, in which were a few stalls, and showed us the cow. A man came and milked her, and Mr. Tyler, Mr. Davis, and I took a tin cup of unpleasantly warm but rich milk, and went out into the Capitol grounds, where they sat down on one of the benches and “talked above” me. In about an hour Mr. Tyler turned and said to me, in a wonderfully winning tone, “Have I spoiled your morning, Madam, with my dull talk?” My husband, partly conscious that he had, and fearful lest I might not be able to cope with the emergency, answered quickly: “Oh, no, my little wife is trying to be a statesman.” They both laughed, and the [258] President then said he was going to make a call upon James Seddon, a young member of Congress from Virginia, a promising young man if his health proved equal to severe labor, and then spoke of Mrs. Seddon as a handsome creature, “who was, you know, Sarah Bruce.” We did not know, but cheerfully said we would call upon them at another time at his request, and he bade us a cordial good-morning. I never saw him again until he came on the arm of his beautiful wife to visit us in the Mansion, at Richmond, sixteen years afterward, and two years before my sister became his grand-daughter-in-law.

When I reached home I straightway wrote to my father, “Who do you think drank out of the same tin cup with me to-day? Why, ex-President Tyler, and he is not the man the National Intelligencer made him out at all. He is not handsome, but he looks a very fine gentleman, and I am sure was not afraid to meet the question of the tariff,” and then went on to relate the incident above.

When these august shades rise before me whose active lives had been lived before I grew to womanhood, the responsible, serious youth that fell to my lot is not a subject of regret. The history of their day has to me a very stirring interest, and as I read the chronicles of their deeds, they stand clothed [259] in their well-remembered personality, struggling with united minds for the whole country, holding the interests and possessions of all equally sacred, and pledged to protect these with their lives. This is a blessed memory, unhappily not that of the youth of to-day.

Mr. Charles Ingersoll, notwithstanding his ill-made wig, great age, and prejudice against Mr. Webster, was, nevertheless, a charming old man, and au courant with all the polite literature of the day. The most delightful evening of my early youth was spent at Mr. Robert J. Walker's, when he was Secretary of the Treasury, talking with Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. George M. Dallas. No young men of this or any other day that I have seen, ever equalled them. These two splendid creatures, finding themselves in charge of a very inexperienced young person, commenced to angle in the shallow stream for such sport as the green recesses might afford. They talked to each other and to me of Byron and Wordsworth, of Dante and Virgil, and I remember the key they gave me to their tastes and temperamental divergence. Mr. Dallas said Wordsworth was the poet of nature, and Mr. Ingersoll remarked that he bore the same relation to cultivated poetic manhood that Adam did to Goethe, and “who would [260] hesitate for a moment which to choose if granted a day with either.” Mr. Dallas immediately announced a preference for Adam, and insisted that a mind fresh from the storehouse of the Supreme Source of all knowledge must have developed many godlike facts instead of immature theories, etc. They whetted their wits upon each other for some time until I ventured the remark that, whether by sin and sorrow, or observation of natural forces, I felt that, as man progressed, he became more interesting, whereupon Mr. Ingersoll laughingly said, “You see Mrs. Davis agrees with me that Cain was more aggressive, and therefore more attractive than Abel, and the ladies in the Land of Nod clearly were more agreeable than those of Eden.” After this evening Mr. Ingersoll was so good as to call several times, and I felt, in Yorkshire phrase, “uplifted” by the attention.

The whole family of Baches were brilliant, well-educated, and thoroughly pleasant people. They had little of poor Richard's thrift, but much of their grandfather's shrewd wit and wisdom. Mrs. Bache (nee Dallas) and her sister, Mrs. Campbell, of Philadelphia, were rare women of the stamp of Lady Palmerston. Age did not seem to dull their sympathies nor impair their mental and moral qualities. [261]

“ They wore the marks of many years well spent, Of virtue, truth well tried, and wise experience,” and their wit and charm of manner placed them at sixty years of age, or more, only a few minutes behind the prettiest girl in that very literary and delightful society. Mrs. Campbell had but one child, a distinguished lawyer in PhiladelphiaSt. George Campbell-but Mrs. Bache had many sons and daughters, who played more or less brilliant roles in governmental society. Dallas Bache, of the Coast Survey, in his day one of the greatest savans the country had produced; George Bache, a brilliant naval officer, who gallantly gave up his life to save the passengers on his sinking ship, and with a sad smile took off his cap and bowed to them as his ship went down before the overladen boats; Richard Bache, also an officer of the Navy, drowned while making a survey of the coast; Mrs. Robert J. Walker, the wife of the Secretary of the Treasury and whilom Senator from Mississippi; Mrs. Irwin, wife of the former Minister to Sweden; Mrs. William H. Emory, whose husband was afterward a General in the United States Army, and who was herself a well-known wit; Mrs. Charles Abert; Mrs. Richard Wainright of the Navy, and Mrs. Allen McLane, a woman of marvellous wit, and strong, bright understanding. [262] They were all, in their different manner, belles esprits, and their children, many of them, are inheritors of much of the family talent-Mrs. Walker's beautiful daughter, Mary, afterward became Mrs. Brewster, the wife of the Attorney-General of President Arthur's Administration.

The Coast Survey at that day was a large, old-fashioned barrack of a house, on the edge of Capitol hill, overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. It was very plainly furnished, and had no curtains to the drawing-room windows, but certain riotously healthy rose geraniums that grew in boxes were interlaced across the window panes and made a flickering green and gray light, and exhaled a delicate odor. This perfume now brings back a ray of the old joy that used to pervade us all when “the family” were bidden to supper there.

On these occasions Mr. Davis and Professor Bache, General Emory and Mr. Walker, jested like boys, told stories of their West-Point life, or of canvasses for office in Mississippi. I had known Mr. Walker since my infancy, and his wife was my mother's dear and intimate friend before my birth, and sometimes we went into a regular romp with him, in which he joined with boyish zest. Mrs. Dallas Bache was a petite and eccentric childless woman, with a great deal of character and [263] much common-sense, and she had not a little epigrammatic wit. Like Mrs. Gladstone, she had given up her life to her husband and was part of all his labors. Once he wrote to her from the Capitol to tell the clerks to send him, in great haste, some papers, needful for the defence of the Coast Survey. She inquired of them and found they knew nothing of what was wanted. She searched until she found them, and wrote only this commentary, “Pins have heads.”

About nine o'clock we were ushered pellmell into a long, unfurnished room, the walls of which were hung everywhere with scientific instruments; disused theodolites were shunted into dark corners; old telescopes, with all the paraphernalia of adjuncts to scientific investigation; and, in the middle of the room, was a great table laden with everything good and appetizing that Washington could furnish. Then the terrapins and canvas-back ducks were not, as now, going to join the buffaloes, the dodo, the roc, and the phoenix as extinct animals; so they were there in profusion. The perfume of the long-necked bottle of Rhine wine filled the room, which the Professor opened himself, there being no servants present, and the gentlemen pledged us and each other in a glass, and the quip and jest flew from one to another, and made of our [264] suppers at the Coast Survey real noctes ambrosianae. When Professor Bache was domesticated with Humboldt, whither he went to investigate the school system of Germany, he learned to like these wines, and always imported them himself.

Mr. Davis was the life of the party, and I never heard him advert but once with regret to a night there. He was one Christmas persuaded to sing an Indian song, and Dallas Bache put on a fur coat to personate Santa Claus, and gave the presents in the most truly dreadful doggerel. Six months afterward, one warm summer day, Mr. Davis exclaimed that he felt oppressed; “but,” said he, “I think it is not the weather, it must be the memory of my Indian song last Christmas, and dear Dallas Bache's execrable doggerel. I am sorry I did not make him sing, and do the rhyme myself.” As the Professor could not turn a tune, and Mr. Davis had no capacity for jocular rhyme, I thought they had reached their utmost limits as it was, but refrained from venturing an opinion.

With the memory of that time come reminiscences of Mr. Robert C. Winthrop and Mr. Bancroft--two men wholly different, yet both most interesting in their way. Mr. Winthrop's personnel bore up his elegance of manner bravely; his refinement was physical [265] as well as mental and acquired. I never saw a woman who did not feel the implied compliment of his notice and a keen enjoyment of his society. His conversation was deliberate and unaffected, but most suggestive. It has been thirty years since I have seen him, but the memory of his friendly regard has always been cherished by me as a gift not to be voluntarily surrendered. Mr. Bancroft was an eccentric man, as typical of his section as Mr. Davis was of his, with a thousand graceful tastes, but a quaint, abrupt manner of seizing the salient points in the mind of his auditor, and turning them from side to side under his tourmal until every shade of color shone distinctly. It made me feel brilliant to talk to him. Then he had the knack of looking interested in the most simple, dull persons, and gave his undivided attention to them for the time. He was liberalized by extensive and observant travel, and could bear the dulness of others, being so able to illuminate it by his own light. His wife was a charming woman, with the best, but the most pronounced, type of New England manners — reserved to a fault, but very sweet and approachable to the few she accepted as congenial to her taste.

Governor Marcy was one of the lions of that time. His wife was a sterling woman, who had a great deal of social talent united to an [266] unconventional honesty remarkable in a woman of the world. They were wealthy, and entertained with ease and profusion. He was not a genial man; he was ambitious and too much in earnest to spare time for social intercourse, but he held well in hand a great deal of caustic wit, and never, though rather testy, ill-naturedly gave it the reins without great provocation. An old diplomat once said that he never understood Mr. Marcy's prominence in politics until he made him angry, “Und den I say here is von lion who is dressed for every day like von lamb.”

We saw but little socially of the President's family during Mr. Polk's administration. We then did not keep a carriage, and Mr. Davis's wound incapacitated him from walking any distance, as he was on crutches, and we therefore boarded near the Capitol for his convenience. People neither made nor wasted money in that day as they do now, and were not indifferent to the fact that a livery carriage meant $1.50 an hour; there were no tramways and no omnibus lines. The distance was so great between the two co-ordinate branches of Government, the Executive and the Legislative, that, taken in conjunction with the driver's alleged duty to make his horses creep, one could do little in making calls in the space of a day. [267]

My social memory of Mr.Polk and Mrs. Polk is meagre. He was not an impressive man at first, but his kind, even deferential, but reserved manner won upon the person honored with his attention. He impressed me as a man innately single-minded, of simple tastes, and unimpugnable honor. His health was evidently not strong, and the duties of his office seemed to wear greatly upon him. Mrs. Polk was very decorous and civil in her manner to all. My acquaintance with her was very slight.

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